POTM: The Letter R

POTM: The Letter R

July Photos of the Month

My toddler likes to play an alphabet game on our tablet; the app pops up a word, has a bunch of cartoon creatures run past it knocking the letters off the word, and requires the kid playing the game to place the letters back into their appropriate spot. When selected, each letter says its phonetic sound. I can’t get the R sound out of my head. Halfway between a growl and a pirate greeting, it’s quite the earworm. So maybe as adults we’ve moved beyond phonics, but the power of the alphabet remains as well as our nostalgia for Sesame Street. To continue our recent alphabet theme, here are some photos of the month, brought to you by the letter R. 

Madame Curie Inspecting the Radium Refining Plant of the Standard Chemical Company, Pittsburgh, PA, 1921.

Madame Curie Inspecting the Radium Refining Plant of the Standard Chemical Company, Pittsburgh, PA, 1921.

AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, gift of Bert M. Coursey

Catalog ID: Curie Marie D3


We don’t have any photos of radium, or some of the more implausible things radium was slipped into (paint, water, medicine!), but we do have plenty of photos of the discoverer of radium, Marie Curie. In this photo, Marie Curie is seen visiting a radium refining plant of the Standard Chemical Company in Pittsburg, PA. Why, you might ask, would the famous Nobel Laureate travel across an ocean to visit Pittsburgh? (No shade to Pittsburgh, great town, not my favorite hockey team.) Radium, famously difficult and expensive to refine, was hard to come by, even for its discoverer. Such was Curie’s desperation when she spoke to journalist Marie Meloney, that she inspired Meloney to start a campaign to raise money for Curie’s radium from the women of America. Brigades of American housewives and schoolgirls raised today’s equivalent of 2 million dollars to purchase and refine a gram of radium for Marie Curie to use in her research. Marie Curie visited America to receive it, coming all the way to the very plant that refined it for her.

You can read more about that fascinating story here.

Formal portrait of Hattie Carwell.

Formal portrait of Hattie Carwell.

AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Ronald E. Mickens Collection

Catalog ID: Carwell Hattie A1

Radiation Protection

Radiation protection, not always a priority of early radiation scientists, is essential for shielding people from the harmful effects of radiation. Though we don’t expect radium to show up in our health elixirs anymore, radiation has become part of our daily lives, whether for health, energy, or science. Hattie Carwell spent her career as a health physicist working in radiation protection at the U.S. Department of Energy and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). She also wrote Blacks in Science: Astrophysicist to Zoologist in 1977. 

Further reading:

Karl Jansky with rotating antenna

Karl Jansky with rotating antenna

 Bell Laboratories / Alcatel-Lucent USA Inc., courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

Catalog ID: Jansky Karl F2

Radio Astronomy

Karl G. Jansky, an engineer for Bell Laboratories, used this rotating antenna in 1932 to find radio waves coming from outside our solar system. His discovery ultimately gave birth to the science of radio astronomy. Jocelyn Bell Burnell later followed up on Jansky’s discovery with the first ever detection of radio pulsars in 1967. Radio astronomy also helps astronomers learn about stellar nurseries like the Orion Nebula and understand the cause of gravitational waves. I guess nobody told astronomers that video killed the radio star?

View of the tunnel which comprises the 'Main Ring' at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

View of the tunnel which comprises the 'Main Ring' at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

Fermilab Photograph, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Catalog ID: Fermilab F8


Fermilab’s Main Ring, to be exact. Like the One Ring for particle physicists?  The description of this photo of the Main Ring tunnel has a basic (for physicists anyway) explanation: “The proton beam travels in a vacuum tube 2 inches by 5 inches located in the center of 1,014 magnets which bend and focus the beam as it travels around the four-mile ring 50,000 times per second. On each revolution, the beam is given a 2.8 million electron volt 'kick' by the radio frequency system, elevating energy to 200 billion electron volts (BeV) or higher. The machine operates regularly at 400 BeV, and has been accelerated to 500 BeV. Cooling water passes through the pipes above, and at the end of the magnets.”

Harlow Shapley at his famous rotating desk at Harvard College Observatory

Harlow Shapley at his famous rotating desk at Harvard College Observatory

 'Ad Astra Per Aspera, Through Rugged Ways to the Stars,' by Harlow Shapley, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Shapley Collection

Catalog ID: Shapley Harlow A6


Harlow Shapley at his famous rotating desk at Harvard College Observatory circa 1940. 

I don’t know about how other people work, but my desk, whether at home or in my office, is always covered in papers, notebooks, and as many computer screens as I can fit. A rotating desk would be a game changer. Better yet, make it an adjustable standing and rotating desk! It would be hard to fit in my office, but that’s a problem for tomorrow. 

If you’re okay learning more about Harlow Shapley, but not his desk, check out his oral histories here:

The 40-inch Yerkes Observatory refracting telescope

The 40-inch Yerkes Observatory refracting telescope

Yerkes Observatory, University of Chicago, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Yerkes Observatory Collection

Catalog ID: Yerkes Observatory F8

Refracting Telescope

This is a photo of the 40-inch Yerkes Observatory refracting telescope before mid-1970 changes. Though Yerkes Observatory housed the largest refracting telescope ever used for astronomy, the first refracting telescope was invented in 1608 by the Dutch lens-maker, Hans Lippershey. This early telescope only magnified objects three or four times and consisted merely of a convex and concave lens in a tube. But as we now know, some other people continued to develop the telescope. Their names have been lost to history...just kidding! They’re some of the most famous scientists ever to have existed: Galileo and Kepler. The refracting telescope dominated astronomy for several hundred years. However, in 1668, another nobody, named Newton, devised a reflecting telescope. Though only a curiosity at first, it developed with the work of famous astronomers like John Hadley and William Herschel, and has now overtaken the refracting telescope in modern astrophysics. I can’t really do the full story justice, but I highly recommend you take a journey through this online exhibit on the history of telescopes.

Goddard Rocket in Flight

Goddard Rocket in Flight

Esther C. Goddard, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Catalog ID: Goddard Rober H1


August 26, 1937, a rocket designed by Robert H. Goddard, in flight near Roswell, New Mexico. Goddard is considered the “Father” of modern rocketry and was the first person to successfully launch a rocket using liquid fuel in 1926. He even theorized that rockets could be powerful enough to take us to the moon one day. Though the media coverage of those theories got a little out of hand and made Goddard suspicious of the press forever. 

Here you can see a short tongue-in-cheek blurb about a moon-shot being postponed from the Washington Times July 15, 1920:

Rocket Trip to Moon Postponed for Month Washington Times July 15, 1920


Venkatraman Ramakrishnan won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 and I cannot possibly summarize his life journey better than his own words upon receiving the Nobel Prize:

Though I find many things admirable and interesting about Ramakrishnan’s eclectic journey through science, this line really caught my eye:

It reinforced in me the feeling that ignorance is not something to be ashamed of, and that no question is too stupid to ask if you want to know the answer.


  1. 1921: Marie Curie visits the U.S.
  2. Marie Curie, Marie Meloney, and the Significance of a Gram of Radium
  3. Before ‘raw water,’ radium water was the craze — and then people died
  4. On Radithor
  5. Hattie Carwell at History Makers
  6. Minority Women in Radiation Protection
  7. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan Nobel Biography
  8. The History of Radio Astronomy  
  9. Dr. Robert H. Goddard, American Rocketry Pioneer
  10. Robert Goddard and the First Liquid-Propellant Rocket
  11. The Washington times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]), 15 July 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1920-07-15/ed-1/seq-…;
  12. The First Telescopes
About the Author

Allison Rein

Allison Rein

Allison Rein is the Associate Director of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. She has a B.A. in history from UMBC and an MLS from the University of Maryland. She spent nearly 10 years working in libraries and archives before coming to AIP. She manages the book collection at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives and if she had to pick a favorite book in the entire collection it would be Radium Girls by Kate Moore. Her favorite thing about working at the Library (and any institution she’s ever worked) is how much she’s constantly learning. 

Caption: Maria Goeppert Mayer posing in a bat costume

See all articles by Allison Rein

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